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FEATURE: Fazeley's canals were a lifeline for industry

By Tamworth Herald  |  Posted: September 12, 2012

  • COVENTRY CANAL: The Kettlebrook Basin, with Glascote's old Cincinnati factory in the background, photographed by Paul Barber in July 1970.

  • FAZELEY MILL: In 1883 smallware manufacturer William Tolson built a state-of-the-art steam powered mill alongside the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. He had previously set up in business in Sir Robert Peel's old cotton mill.

  • CONNECTION: Fazeley Junction, where the Fazeley and Birmingham Canal joins with the Coventry Canal.

  • CROSSING THE TAME: For a while the Fazeley aqueduct, which carries the Coventry Canal, was a popular tourist attraction.

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MOST local people are aware of Tamworth's importance in the building of England, but how many realise that neighbouring Fazeley played a truly pivotal role at the hub of our country's transport system?

It all came about because of the Industrial Revolution, which began in the middle of the 18th Century and changed the lives of every person in Britain.

It was a time when people were leaving the land in droves to work in the new mills and factories.

And although it was a far from healthy life, it was the considerable rise in income that attracted them.

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Coal mining increased dramatically due to the high fuel demand from the factories.

Enormous mills proliferated, especially in Lancashire, Birmingham and the Black Country.

The Potteries also grew from cottage industries into centres of mass production.

It seemed like all England was alive with industry, but they had one major problem – transport.

From the middle of the 17th century, main land routes between major cities had improved somewhat with the introduction of turn-pike roads, but they were not keeping up with the pace of the revolution.

Necessity is the mother of invention and the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater needed to transport large quantities of coal from his colliery in Worsley to the mills in Manchester, 10 miles away.

James Brindley, a Derbyshire lad who was apprenticed to a millwright, became an engineer and made a name for himself by building an engine designed to pump excessive water out of the coal mines.

He was illiterate and seldom used drawings for his work but, nevertheless, the Duke employed him to build a canal that would solve the problem.

Brindley commenced in 1759, surmounted many problems during construction, but with the aid of a large workforce completed the job.

The Bridgewater Canal opened in 1770 and, through tolls, paid for itself within a couple of years.

When other industrialists saw the profits that could be gained, they wanted the same.

It became known as 'canal mania' and moneyed folk poured great fortunes into the new transport system.

Suddenly, tons of coal could be shifted without the need for mule trains or wagons and horses. Just one horse could tow around 30 tons, 10 times the weight they could haul in a wagon.

And fragile pottery and glass could be transported with reduced breakages caused by pot-holed roads.

There was much talk in Tamworth of canals being cut in the borough, and one or two speculators were interested. But it came to nothing.

The 4th Viscount Townshend, who lived at Tamworth Castle, was a man who had the means to make it happen – but he thought it too expensive and too risky.

Where Tamworth hesitated, Fazeley jumped in headlong and invited prospectors to seek out the possibilities.

In 1768 the Fazeley, Atherstone and Coventry Canal Company was formed.

It was said that £50,000 would be needed, and for quite a while people who initially said they would invest were backward in coming forward. It looked as though the dream would not materialise.

But there was a plan to run a canal from Coventry to Fradley, where it could join what is now known as the Trent and Mersey Canal.

In 1769 a section was cut between Coventry and Bedworth and soon became busy transporting coal to the city.

By 1771 it had been extended to Atherstone, but then investment dried up, about 20 miles short of Fradley.

To continue any further involved building 11 locks just outside Atherstone, a further two locks at Glascote and an aqueduct over the River Tame.

No-one was willing to commit to the expense and so construction came to a halt.

It remained that way for 11 years.

Then there was a proposal to build a canal linking Birmingham with Fazeley. Making it profitable depended on whether or not it could join a larger network of canals.

The companies came together, with the Coventry Canal agreeing to build the section as far as Fazeley, including the locks and the aqueduct.

The Birmingham-Fazeley Canal people agreed with the Trent and Mersey Canal to share the cost of the 11 miles needed to be cut to reach Fradley, creating Fradley Junction.

The investments were made and everything came together to set the wheels in motion.

In 1784 work began and large numbers of people, from surveyors to navvies, were employed. Lodging houses opened up to accommodate them.

The work took over five years, but they triumphed and in 1790 the whole network became operational.

There were celebrations throughout the villages, including Hopwas, Fazeley, Glascote, Amington and Alvecote. The Fazeley aqueduct, a marvel of engineering of its time, became a venue for sightseers.

Having links to the industrial Black Country and a connection to London, via Oxford, the Fazeley canal network was a massive success and became known to navigators nationwide.

Businesses along the canal flourished, including Peel's Mill, later to become Tolson's, and hostelries to quench the thirst of weary boat people became commonplace.

Although some people owned their own working boats, most worked for the large transport companies such as Samuel Barlow, who built one of their many wharves at Glascote.

The 'Golden Age' of the canals lasted until the 1840s, when business people became aware that railways could compete on speed and efficiency.

The canals remained in viable competition for transporting certain commodities until World War Two. But after the war, road transport became the dominant form of transport and most canals went into a rapid decline.

They were often drained and littered with household and industrial rubbish, becoming eyesores.

In the 1950s, societies were formed with the aim of restoring the waterways to their former glory. They petitioned the government for financial help, but their pleas usually fell on deaf ears.

By the middle 1960s, however, a more sympathetic government decided to help.

With a mixture of public fund-raising and government cash, water companies and hundreds of volunteers up and down the country returned the filthy, insanitary canals into pleasant, navigable waterways.

In Alvecote, Glascote and Fazeley there are marinas where people live on houseboats in permanent moorings.

The old canals became peaceful places, often a haven for wildlife. Indeed, they gave birth to a tourist industry that is still thriving.

Hopefully, improvements made over the last 50 years can be sustained, if only for the good of the environment.

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